Final Project: The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire

In the early morning of April 18, 1906, a massive earthquake struck the city of San Francisco, California, turning it to rubble. Far more destructive than the earthquake, however, were the fires that followed. San Francisco at the time was a modern city, on par with those in the East, with a sophisticated underground water infrastructure and a fully paid, well staffed and trained fire department. Yet history records fires running rampant throughout the city for days. What went wrong?

It is a bit of a truism that large disasters are the result of several errors happening simultaneously, and 1906 was no exception. My final project will examine a series of errors surrounding the city’s extensive water infrastructure, at both a smaller scale in San Francisco itself and a larger scale taking in the city and general area. In the smaller scale, I will look at how the city was arranged into various fire districts, how they were supposed to work, and how the system broke down in April 1906. At the larger scale, my project will also examine the various conduits bringing water from outside San Francisco to reservoirs inside the city. By examining these factors, I aim to show how the failures of San Francisco’s water infrastructure were crucial factors in the city’s destruction by fire, and finally how the local successes and failures of the water system make themselves visible in the destruction.

Some of my most useful sources were the Sanborn-Perris fire insurance maps for San Francisco, published in 1899 and updated through 1905. The USGS website has also been of great help to me, both in providing contemporary maps and secondary-source analysis. I am indebted to the San Francisco Fire Department Fire Museum for digitizing many of the after-action reports of its fire crews as well as findings from the city inquiry after the disaster. Finally I will be using some secondary sources from the 2006 city centennial of the earthquake and the Seismological Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.


San Francisco: More and More Questions

I feel like I’m experiencing the most basic frustration for historians: you dive into your sources looking for answers, and find only more questions. Expanding off the work I did for the small projects regarding fire districts, I’ve been looking into precisely where the water mains had burst, and what each would have meant for the ability of the San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD) to combat the fires. The results, to say the least, have been rather interesting: not only were pipes inside the city damaged, I’ve located a USGS map that showed breaks to two of the major water mains several miles to the south of the city; these pipes fed some of the city’s major reservoirs, and their break would definitely have impacted SFFD efforts at firefighting. However, at the same time as I’ve discovered such illuminating information, I’m simultaneously gaining more and more questions.

For example, I still have yet to find much information on destruction other than the main portion around Market Street, aside from contemporary illustrations that southern San Francisco was “burning in spots.” Where were they burning? What caused the fires? How bad were they? What was being done to fight them? I’m still looking.

Recently, however, I suddenly came up with several new questions. I’d finally found a map that showed a day-to-day spread of the fires as well as their probably origin points, a big step up from simply knowing the extent of the devastation. In particular, I saw the origin point of what was called the “Ham and Eggs” fire. The story often told is that two days after the earthquake, someone was attempting to cook breakfast in a house unknowingly damaged by the earthquake, and started a fire that burned for three days. When I described this on the phone to my dad, an engineer and son of a chemist, he replied that the Ham and Eggs fire, rather than just a silly and perhaps apocryphal tale, felt like a textbook example of an unnoticed natural gas leak.

Did San Francisco use natural gas back then? If any part would, the rich and business districts would, which might explain why the wealthy portion of the city suffered more than the slums and Chinatown. Was there an infrastructure under the city for conveying natural gas? If so, where? Could any of them have been damaged? By law, modern day natural gas has the odor of rotting eggs artificially added, but in its natural form natural gas is both odorless and colorless. When was that law passed? Furthermore, if natural gas was used in San Francisco, was it citywide or used only by the elite? Would firefighters have been familiar with natural gas? The story is often told of firefighters attempting to create fire breaks, but through inexperience with gunpowder inadvertently setting more fires. Could their problem have actually been inexperience with natural gas–the explosions igniting natural gas lines? I do not know.

I originally thought of this project as a ‘plan B’, but as time has gone on it has blossomed more and more. On the one hand, I know I already have far more than I need for this class, but on the other I keep diving into it. Could this turn into an article or something bigger? I don’t know, but there’s only one way to find out.

Post #9: Railroaded

Reading Richard White’s Railroaded was fascinating for me on any number of levels, but perhaps one reason above all others is that I have from an early age been enamored by trains and the railroad. (Blame Thomas.) Living near the Port of Los Angeles, my train-obsessed mind loved listening into the night for the soft whistle of the trains carrying freight to and from the port, and when I was young mom and I would go on late night drives trying to get stuck behind a train signal so I could watch them go by. I poured myself into learning as much as I could about trains, and one of the major themes I caught up on was how, in spite of all the difficulties, the discrimination, and the danger, the steel rails of the railroad connected the nation together. Though some of these “difficulties” made it into my mind–the plight of the Chinese to tunnel through the Rockies, for example–in the end I was always too focused on the positive “connecting the nation” bit to look too much into them.

It is for this reason that I say, without (too much) malice, that Railroaded has destroyed my childhood. All the books I had read on the railroad when I was younger combined the fates of the various railroad companies and left a message concentrated on the larger picture of tying the nation together. White’s book was the first for me to ignore the railroad and delve deeper into the railroads, and the results are much darker that I had thought earlier. White’s portrayal of 19th-century railroad companies reminds me of many of the modern-day tropes for an “evil corporation”, from rampant corruption and little accountability to manipulating the authority of the state to the reduction of human beings and livelihoods to mere numbers. It says a lot that rather than reinforcing in any way the positive long-term effects of the railroad, White ends his book with most of the companies bloated with mismanagement and bureaucracy to the point of collapsing under their own weight, in turn leading to the Panic of 1893 and a boom-bust cycle still seen today. I feel like a fan of Disney’s The Little Mermaid discovering the book it’s based off of ends with her stabbing herself.

Despite the crushing of my childhood dreams, however, I am neither too saddened by the revelation nor am I all that surprised. I suppose in many ways I had outgrown my childhood fancies enough to recognize there was more to the story that I knew. Perhaps it is more indicative of a certain amount of cynicism that comes with being a historian (or “Professional Curmudgeon,” to quote Dr. O’Malley). In any case, Richard White’s Railroaded has certainly given me plenty more to talk about when it comes to the railroads crossing the west.

On the other hand, however, it still is a fact that the western railroads did play a significant positive role in the nations’ development in the twentieth century, if not so much the nineteenth. In any case, when I’m reading Thomas the Tank Engine to my two-year-old niece, I don’t think I’ll change the ending to Sir Topham Hatt happily sending Thomas and the other steam trains to the scrap yard for trying to unionize against the diesel engines.

At least, not yet.

This week I commented on Chris‘ blog.

Post #7: Learning New Things

During my grade school history classes in Southern California, the Reconstruction was just another event that happened “over there.” I mentioned before how my schooling spent more time on the Gold Rush than on the Civil War, and the aftermath was always summed up as “after the South was ground into the dirt, the North attempted to change what had started the war in the first place, but the South was stubborn again and it wouldn’t get sorted out for another hundred years.” Segway to the Indian Wars, the rise of American colonialism, and the Spanish-American war.

Imagine my shock, then, upon reading D. Michael Bottoms’ An Aristocracy of Color: Race and Reconstruction in California and the West, 1850-1890. I found Bottoms’ treatment of the effects of Reconstruction in California endlessly fascinating, because suddenly what was just “over there” came much closer to home. The Reconstruction transformed from “Uncooperative South: The Sequel” to a far more nuanced and interesting look at race and equality across the entire nation.

Of course, I had learned of the various racial tensions in California before–it certainly wasn’t the thing one could ignore in the wake of the Rodney King riots–and an undergraduate course I took with Professor Landsberg concerning the changing perceptions of “whiteness” hammered it home even more. California, after all, was one of the driving states behind the immigration restriction laws of the pre-World War One and inter-war periods–unlike much of the country, aiming at Asia rather than Eastern Europe. California was also one of the state that clamored most for the interment of Japanese-Americans in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attacks, so it certainly wasn’t surprising that California had experienced racial tensions and problems..

I guess, perhaps, that the most striking thing for me was simply the connection between California’s racial problems and tensions with the era of post-Civil War Reconstruction. In retrospect, though such a connection should have struck me upside the head some time ago, it simply had never occurred to me to connect what happened “over there” with issues that affected and continued to affect California. I guess it goes to show that we are the same country after all. Go figure.

This week I commented on David’s post.

Post # 6: Now for Something Completely Different

This has been a rather rough couple of weeks. First, my wife’s grandmother was put on hospice, and then passed away. Rather inefficient trying to do research while making funeral arrangements and trying to play peacekeeper amongst my wife’s family.

Second, despite looking all over for newspapers regarding the O.K. Corral shootout so I could gauge reactions to the gunfight, searching through all the historical newspapers databases turned up nothing.

So: Plan B. The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.

On April 18, 1906, a massive earthquake–measuring about 7.8 on the Richter scale–hit the city of San Francisco. The city, then comprised mainly of Eastern-style brick buildings (which disintegrate into dust in an earthquake), was devastated. Large portions of the city collapsed into rubble, and then to make matters worse, what remained standing was soon consumed by raging fires. Many of the city’s water mains had burst, and in desperation firefighters began dynamiting buildings in an attempt to create a fire break, all to often only spreading the fire they were attempting to contain. By the time the fires were at last extinguished four days later, over 3,000 people were dead, and about 80% of the city of San Francisco, including the entirety of the financial district and city hall, had been destroyed.

The 1906 earthquake left a lasting impression on the development of California. For over 60 years, San Francisco with its enormous natural harbor had been the financial, cultural, and trade hub of the Pacific coast, the “Gateway to the Pacific” through which America extended its economic and military power westward to Asia. After the quake, though San Francisco rebuilt quickly, it was never able to shake (no pun intended) off the memories of 1906. Much of the trade power moved south to coalesce around a small settlement in the southern third of the state named Los Angeles, and much of the military power based in San Francisco redeployed to a small town near the border with Mexico named San Diego.

I wanted to examine the city’s water mains, to see if perhaps there was a pattern between the fire main failures and the city-wide destruction. Remembering my History and Cartography class, I knew there was a source that might have the answer: the Sanborn insurance maps. Sadly, however, Mason does not have access to Sanborn maps of California, but I was able to find a perfect example online: a colored 1899 Sanborn map showing which areas were covered by which water reservoirs. Unfortunately, I could not download it. But I kept it open in a tab, and soon uncovered another version of the same map, this time uncolored.

San Francisco Contour fire map 1899 original

Luckily for me, my History and Cartography class had introduced me to Adobe Illustrator, and by swapping between Illustrator and the colored map for reference, I was able to recolor the Sanborn map.

San Francisco Contour fire map 1899

Now that I knew where the water mains covered, I quickly found a map showing the destroyed portions of San Francisco. Opening up Illustrator again, I painstakingly overlaid the torched areas (in black) over the map of the fire mains.

San Francisco Earthquake burned map primary

San Francisco Earthquake burned map

Interestingly, when coloring in the map and noticing the enormous size of some of the water districts, I was expecting the largest district to have suffered most, but this was not the case. Instead, the fire affected most the patchwork of fire districts near the harbor. I wonder if perhaps the small size and patchwork nature of these districts contributed to their destruction: maybe such a layout made these districts dependent on a small number of water mains, and when these burst they were left helpless, as opposed to the larger districts which presumably have more water mains and when one burst they could redirect water from other parts of the district. In any case, a goal for future research!

Post #5: L&O: Wild West Reactions

I apologize for posting this blog so late, but I really wanted to write this week on my mother’s reactions to Murder in Tombstone…which I could not do until she had gotten the book. But now, she has received the book at last, and last night we were able to finally discuss it.

Her first reaction, and the tidbit from the book that struck her the most, was simply the fact that cross-examination is new. “Cross-exanimation is kind of your only hope” to put a dent in the opponent’s case, she said, and that without it, “it is very difficult to try a case.” Cross-examination, and the ability to poke holes in shaky testimony, is one of the most important things a trial lawyer today has to learn, mom said, and so the fact that Tom Fitch was “the only guy who knew how to do it” gave the defense an immense advantage right from the start.

The second thing that caught mom’s eye is how the defense was able to present their case as a unified theme, while the prosecution was all over the map. “You simply do not try a case without a theme. It is Trial Lawyer 101,” mom said. “You do not walk into a courtroom without one, and every argument, every everything has to fit that theme, and at the end of the day that theme has to get you where you want to go.” The fact that the prosecution completely lacked a theme, a unifying, coherent argument, sabotaged it from the start. The prosecution simply could not present any evidence for why the Earps suddenly, on this day, decided to go shoot the cowboys, especially considering how opposed to their usual modus operandi lethal violence was.

Why was the prosecution so divided? Mom lays the blame squarely on the shoulders of Will McLaury, who was emotionally involved that he “lacked the objectivity to step back, and say ‘we have a pretty solid manslaughter case, but a pretty crummy one for premeditated murder.'” By focusing so much on obtaining the death penalty for the Earps, McLaury ensured that the Earps would get off altogether. “They never had premeditated murder,” mom commented, “so from the very beginning the prosecution was on losing ground.”

All was not lost for the prosecution, though, and it was possible that they could have changed course. “As a trial lawyer, you have to have the intellectual honesty to change course if necessary.” But Will McLaury, so fixated on avenging his brothers, simply could not step back and examine the case. “It’s the best example,” mom commented, “of why you don’t try a case for your family. You have to be fabulously objective to be a decent trial lawyer.”

It was interesting to me as I spoke with mom was how, despite being a former defense attorney, most of what she talked about concerned the prosecution. To mom, the story was some of how the defense completely demolished the prosecution, but for the most part the story was of how the prosecution completely bungled up their case. At the end of our conversation, mom summed up her thoughts, and her closing argument is damning.

“The prosecution was screwed up in the following ways: they were outgunned, I mean sometimes the lawyers on the other side are just better, and the defense council was just better. Defense council had training and experience in cross-examination and used it well, and the defense had a theme. Those things…will carry the day. And the prosecution, you know, outgunned, yes, but also inflexible. they needed to take the bad stuff that came out in the defense and use it, and neutralize it, and call more witnesses, and put on a rebuttal. They didn’t even try. You need to be flexible as an attorney and you need to be willing to hear what’s coming in and do something with it. Or go down fighting; you know, it doesn’t always work but at least you go down fighting. [Me: Instead of just watching it shoot past?] Yeah, they just watched. I mean, their rebuttal case was pathetic. That’s a ‘we’re not even going to try.'”

Post #4: Law and Order: Wild West

Dun Dun.

Anyone who has ever watched the show Law and Order, or any of it’s spin-offs Special Victims Unit or Criminal Intent, will be intimately familiar with that sound. It serves as punctuation, signifying more that just a change of scene but a change in the case, a notice to the viewer that what they expect is about to be thrown for a loop.

It is a sound I am certainly quite familiar with. My mother is a trial lawyer, and her passionate interest in all things legal remains as high today as it was when she served as a Public Defender for the Los Angeles County Superior Court when I was a child. She even would read her case files to me when I was a baby, which I’m sure must have been highly amusing to any bystander. And, of course, mother adores watching Law and Order.

I mention this because as I was reading the latter half of Steven Lubet’s book Murder in Tombstone: The Forgotten Trial of Wyatt Earp, I increasingly felt not like a graduate student reading a historical work but like my mother watching Law and Order. The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is perhaps the most famous gunfight in history, and has been thoroughly analyzed to death by historians. However, along with focusing on the trial afterwards as opposed to the gunfight itself, Lubet, an attorney, often takes the time to highlight pieces often overlooked by historians, from legal minutia to the background of judges to the hottest new practices in lawyering. Lubet, more than any historian I have read, shows one thing above all: how the Earps’ (and Holliday’s) defense completely and utterly demolished their opponents.

The opening of the book sets up the conflict, giving background on the major participants and their interconnected relationships, before continuing to give a rough sketch of crucial events on the day of the gunfight. But it is after about fifty pages–just a quarter of the way into the book, after the gunfight, that Lubet’s account really comes into its own. Like the television show, the “crimes” have been committed, and the suspects caught; now the case must be brought to court.

Lubet masterfully starts in with the prosecution, laying out their arguments against the accused, with the defense biting at the witnesses in cross-examination. They open cracks and expose flaws, but the defense does not overreach, not even when one prosecution witness practically self-destructs on the stand. To make matters worse, despite the cracks and the flaws, the prosecution seems to have a fairly good case. Lubet points all this out: the defense has these roads open to them, and they desperately need to crack open the prosecution’s firm case; why not go in for the kill?  After all, both sides are playing for keeps. But then, as the prosecution rests, and the defense rises, it happens.

Dun Dun.

Throughout the book, from the background to the gunfight to the prosecution, Lubet had noted, pointed out, left hanging, numerous different threads and tidbits, leaving the reader well aware of their presence yet frustratingly seeming to forget them. But now, as the defense makes its arguments, all these mentioned-and-forgotten elements start coming together at once, taking out not bits and pieces but entire chunks. His attorney background well on display, Lubet has lead the reader as well as he would a witness and as well as the television show would a viewer, and the reader can only grin as one watches everything fall into place, from the history of the judge to obscure legal statutes to the prosecution overreaching in desire of revenge, before the judge finally rules in favor of the defense.

Lubet, by taking an entirely different perspective from established history, achieved any historians dream: producing original research. Murder in Tombstone is not merely a book of what happened in the aftermath of the gunfight by the O.K. corral, but how and why what happened did. Lubet not only brings up previously dismissed facts but explains why they are important both legally and historically, and explains how each tiny piece contributed to the larger whole. The result is both informative and entertaining: a documentary with the feel of a courtroom drama. Law and Order: Wild West. Hell, I’d watch it.

Dun dun.

I commented on Carol’s blog.